Front Row at the Movies
"Two Faces of January"
A Lesser Known Thriller
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
More than two-dozen films have been based on Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers. The one you might recognize best is Alfred Hitchcock’s classic "Strangers on a Train." Or maybe you’ve read her books about the murderer Tom Ripley (five novels known to followers as The Ripliad).
Although a fan of her novels and short stories, somehow I’d missed "The Two Faces of January," her 1964 tale of murder and deceit in Greece.
But no need to go to the bookstore, now that it has been adapted into a film by Iranian-British director Hossein Amini. "The Two Faces of January" is playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Here we meet American con man Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) as they tour Athens. He’s on the lam because of a few Ponzi schemes. This shady couple bumps into a tour guide at the Acropolis who scams tourists. Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac) takes a liking to them because MacFarland reminds him of his dad.
When tracked down by a private detective, MacFarland inadvertently kills him. Rydal helps hide the body. The MacFarlands and their new cohort travel to Crete to buy counterfeit passports. Unable to check into a hotel with papers, they spend the night in a restaurant, Chester drinking while Colette and Rydal flirt. With jealousy rearing its ugly head, it becomes a question of who will kill whom.
Although a talented writer, Patricia Highsmith was a misanthrope who preferred cats to people. She also raised snails.
Knowing they’d been acquainted, I once asked Otto Penzler, owner of New York’s Mysterious Bookshop, about her. His words were not kind, even though I knew he admired her writing. "She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person," he once said. "I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly."
I found it interesting that she started off writing for comic books, before switching to thriller novels. She once wrote an instructional book titled "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction."
Although I’d missed reading "The Two Faces of January," I learned that it won the Dagger Award by the Crime writers Association of Great Britain in 1964.
"It’s one of her lesser known works," acknowledges Hossein Amini. He read the book while in college. "It appealed to me in a different way in my twenties than it did much later when I was in my 40s," he says. "When I was young, it was Rydal’s story that fascinated me and all his problems with his father, but by the time I got to make the film I was closer to Chester, in how you begin to realize that life didn’t go the way you planned it. So I suddenly understood the side of the older guy. Finding a connection with the characters and going ‘I know how this person feels’ is what makes a successful adaptation, not necessarily to identify things they’ve done -- so that way you can make movies about murderers and bank robbers -- but finding something about them that’s relatable."